In November 2019, Israeli military chief Aviv Kochavi summed up an effort against Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip – Operation Black Belt – on an unequivocal note.
“The Black Belt plan met the goal set for it,” he wrote in a notice sent to soldiers, and then mentioned an Islamic Jihad leader. “We’ve created conditions to improve the situation in the Gaza Strip through the killing of Baha Abu al-Ata, and harsh damage to the terrorists of the Islamic Jihad organization and military infrastructure.”
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Was that round of fighting a success? “Definitely,” Kochavi wrote, adding that “we severely damaged [Islamic Jihad’s] offensive capabilities.”
As he put it, “We hit rocket-production workshops, training compounds, ammunition warehouses, weapons and underground terrorist sites, attack-tunnel shafts, launching sites, military headquarters and more.”
In a closed meeting a few days later, an intelligence official added that “we damaged infrastructure and activists of the organization in a way that took them back a few years, to a state where it wasn’t worth it to set the ground on fire again.” At the end of the operation, then-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett declared that “new rules of the game” were now in place.
A year and a half later, Islamic Jihad is shoulder to shoulder with Hamas and is responsible for a significant percentage of the rocket launches from Gaza, including a few fired at the Tel Aviv area and the rest of the center of the country.
Earlier this week, at the height of the fighting, the Israel Defense Forces killed the commander of the organization’s northern Gaza brigade, Husam Abu Harbid – Abu al-Ata’s replacement. Abu Harbid led the firing of dozens of rockets at Israel in the period between the operations, commanded the firing of anti-tank missiles at Israeli civilians, and led Islamic Jihad’s tunnel network in northern Gaza.
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In addition to killing Abu Harbid, the IDF notes many other accomplishments: damage to sites for producing rockets and other weapons, to military compounds and homes of operatives that served as weapons warehouses, to training compounds and headquarters, and of course to launchers, tunnel shafts and observation posts.
But all these accomplishments might actually attest to the impressive rapid recovery of Islamic Jihad, contradicting the eulogies by Israeli defense officials and politicians only a year and a half earlier.
And Islamic Jihad is still a small organization and short of resources compared to Hamas, which has also been eulogized a number of times over the past three years.
Balloons, kites and fire
At a meeting in May 2018, defense officials presented a situation assessment on Hamas’ capabilities in Gaza. A senior officer estimated that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had hundreds of rockets with a range of up to 42 kilometers (26 miles), dozens with a greater range and a few thousand of shorter range.
Two months later, in July, then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman listed the blows that Hamas had suffered in the latest round of fighting. “There are 159 dead terrorists and some 5,000 wounded,” he said.
“We hit essential infrastructure of Hamas, including manufacturing infrastructure, a weapons warehouse and a key training facility. We hit two tunnels, in each of which they invested three to four years. I think the message is understood. And if it’s not understood, we’ll have to continue.”
Near the end of that year, another security meeting was held – also with people from Military Intelligence, the Southern Command and the General Staff. A situation assessment was presented in preparation for 2019.
The numbers presented were far from the impressive achievements listed at the end of rounds of fighting of that year – Hamas had around 5,000 rockets of various ranges. Islamic Jihad, though it’s the smaller group, had about 8,000 rockets.
In May 2019, the IDF was dragged into another round of fighting against Hamas. The operation began as a result of the airborne firebombs being sent over from Gaza; they were accompanied by attempts to attack Israeli soldiers near the border fence and violent protests at the fence.
In two days of fighting, 350 Hamas targets were attacked, two senior leaders were killed, over 10 homes of senior operatives were bombed, six multistory buildings were brought down, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad tunnels were attacked. Over 650 rockets were fired at Israel.
A senior military official said that this time “we were much more aggressive,” and that on one of the days, a Saturday afternoon, “100 targets were attacked in a single hour.” He concluded that Hamas had been deterred and would now be held back for a long time.
A senior intelligence official agreed for the most part but said that “we have brought Hamas and Jihad to a situation of quiet for a short period.” He said Gaza’s socioeconomic woes were “the foundation for the whole escalation, and diplomatic efforts had to be bolstered.”
In November, the Southern Command said the rounds of fighting had led to a rift between the organizations; Hamas not wanting an escalation became the accepted opinion.
In December 2020, Kochavi made a more decisive statement: “It can be said unambiguously that every enemy facing us fears to enter a war with us. We attacked Hamas for two weeks and they didn’t fire back at us, they fought with kites and balloons.” Still, Kochavi thought the chances that the two sides could be dragged into an undesired escalation were high, and asked for operational plans in preparation for such a possibility.
Defense officials carried out another step over the past three years – an operation designed to prevent Hamas and Islamic Jihad from strengthening. It began with the end of the November 2019 effort against Islamic Jihad, and all the Israeli security organizations took part. They operated in areas far from Israel and Gaza, trying to prevent Hamas from reviving and bringing into Gaza means for producing advanced weapons and other arms. The IDF sought to damage Hamas’ drone and rocket projects.
Defense officials say the operation was a great success and many of the supplies that Hamas expected were denied it. At the beginning of this year, Military Intelligence assessed that Hamas was focusing on civilian goals in Gaza but was still continuing to improve militarily.
“There is very significant restraint, but also a process of strengthening – both in quality and quantity” was the assessment at the time.
The fact that Hamas kept trying to revive didn’t change the messages from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, the defense chiefs and the political leadership.
“Hamas received blows that they didn’t expect. We have sent Hamas back many years,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday at the end of a situation assessment at the Southern Command.
As a source in the IDF added, “Our achievements are damage to manufacturing capabilities, to strengthening, to command and control. We destroyed the manufacturing infrastructure of Hamas and Jihad. It will take years for them to return and rebuild it.”
To ramp up the number of achievements this month, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit mentions the same targets that were attacked many times during the past three years under different names. The office of Hamas’ internal security chief, the intelligence headquarters in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood and other large headquarters that were attacked in the past and described as Hamas infrastructure are now called “government targets.”
But some people in the IDF are trying to tone things down, possibly to prevent disappointment when the fighting ends.
“This isn’t the round that will solve all our problems with Gaza. This is a round designed to bring back deterrence,” a senior officer reportedly said in a closed session this week.
At that meeting the officer reportedly admitted that the number of rockets fired at the Tel Aviv area and the rest of central Israel surprised the IDF. A former senior defense official told Haaretz that Hamas’ rocket-firing prowess this round is something many armies would have a hard time matching.
Military Intelligence said last year that Hamas’ goals for the next round were to “deter, inflict pain, surprise, prevent a victory, extract a price, disrupt routine life, improve the accomplishments in the process of agreements and obtain cards for the day after.” The former senior defense official said that for now, Hamas is the side that has achieved its goals.